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Plot Structure In Novels (Part 2), by Kate Forsyth

When I am planning my novels, I think very carefully about when an event in the book happens. Each event must lead logically to the next event, building in pace and suspense until we reach the climax, the point of highest tension in the book. This is called rising action. At the point of climax, the problem of the book must be solved, the antagonist overcome and the crisis resolved.

I usually like to have three major ordeals, or turning points (sometimes called crises).

The first will indicate a change in gear, a quickening of pace, a movement from one place to another, or from one set of feelings to another. I call this the first turning point. It often involves moving through a doorway or gateway, or from one place to another.

The second is what I call ‘the dark night of the soul’, but is also sometimes called the Midpoint Reversal, or the second turning point. It usually is a key moment psychologically as well as physically. It is a moment when it seems all is lost. I like to position this as close to the middle of the book as possible, but that’s because I have an obsession with symmetry. Other writers place it much more loosely in the novel’s structure.

The third major ordeal is the climax of the book, the point at which the hero must triumph or fail.

Each of these three major ordeals or crises takes roughly a quarter of the book to develop and the ending takes the final quarter. This helps me to control pacing, and keep the different sections of the book balanced.

As I work toward the final climax of the book, I will shorten my chapter length, quicken pace, and reduce the number of chapters ending in resolution, so that the compulsion to read on becomes stronger. This helps builds suspense.

The idea behind rising action is that each scene is more intense, more dramatic, more interesting, more compelling, than the scene which came before. Of course, one can still have moments of rest and introspection after a scene of high intensity. They just tend to be shorter.

Another thing to realise is that the tension in each scene does not need to be supplied by gun battles and car chases. It can be a scene of emotional or psychological intensity – a key moment of revelation, for example.

Basically, all events in your story are leading toward the point of highest tension, which is the climax. This climactic scene is followed by falling action, and then the denouement or “unravelling”, a scene in which the triumph of the hero is celebrated, or the tragic hero’s fate is accepted, leading to new self-knowledge.

The combination of rising action, climax, and falling action creates a shape rather like an Isosceles triangle:

Freytag's triangle

This is called a Freytag’s Triangle, named after Gustave Freytag, a German literary critic who analysed Aristotle’s Poetics and broke his theory of dramatic unity down into its different components. The above graph was made by Barbara F. McManus in her book Tools for Analysing Prose Fiction.

This is how I have redrawn this narrative arc for myself:

plot graph

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Kate Forsyth’s author website: www.kateforsyth.com.au

Kate Forsyth’s bio page

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One Comment Post a comment
  1. I really like your model. I’ve studied plot a lot, and I think yours is about the best way to think of it. I have a similar model, in fact, which I shaped into a circle—like the hero’s round—which mixes in another famous plot structure. I wrote a post about it here: http://www.jwashburn.com/2012/03/how-to-structure-novels-plot.html and would love to hear what you think.

    The funny thing is—even after studying plot so much, it can still be hard to implement. Your post was a good reminder of how important it is though. Thanks for writing!

    October 22, 2013

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